Only Blair has the right stuff for top EU position


Former British PM can transcend the narrow vision of many EU leaders on the European Council president’s role, writes JOHN WATERS

THE RECENT award of the Nobel Peace prize to US president Barack Obama – and he not even a wet day in office – summarises eloquently the attitude of western culture to political leadership in our time. What we look for in our leaders is the preservation of moral and political virginity, uncontaminated by responsibility or decisions. This touching but unrealistic desire is a byproduct of six decades of tranquillity, interruptedly momentarily by 9/11. At the core of this culture is the idea that peace is natural and conflict always a self-serving choice made for base reasons by bad people. This outlook has gained increased traction of late as a result of the internet, which allows an active minority, overburdened with free time and entirely unburdened with responsibility or accountability, to increasingly dictate the drift of thought in our democracies.

On the other side of the coin is Tony Blair, recently depicted in a Steve Bell cartoon in the Guardian as Radovan Karadzic’s twin. Such radical disproportion is everywhere now, as the complacency generated by the West’s sense of invulnerability holds up its own delusions as a shield against geopolitical reality.

Blair is back in the news because his name has been mentioned in connection with the presidency of the European Council, to be created on the final ratification of the Lisbon Treaty.

For all their high-flown rhetoric about the importance of Europe, most of Europe’s national leaders appear to want the presidency to deliver a third functional but anonymous presidency to add to those of commission and parliament. Of the available candidates, only Blair has the stature to transcend this narrow ambition, to redefine not just the council presidency but perhaps the entire EU project, as seen from both inside and outside the tent. If the EU is to shake off the sense of disconnection that has rendered it culturally moribund, what is required in the new job is a leader who can define the presidency outside the bureaucratic framework already established by EU institutions, signalling to the citizens of Europe and the wider world the EU is at last becoming a community of peoples.

Blair has the skills and personality to communicate a renovated message about the nature of the community, to nurture relations between Europe and the rest of the world, and to speak authoritatively about issues such as climate change, immigration and new models of economy. The danger is this perhaps final chance for the EU to become a genuine political organism may be scuppered by the underhand diplomacy of bloggers and pygmy politicians.

When the bloggers are not spitting at Blair because of his role in the invasion of Iraq, they are dismissing him as the sultan of spin. Although undoubtedly a politician of the media age, Blair also exhibits a deep seriousness that counterpoints his superstar image. You only have to look at his record – not least the legacy of peace on this island – to know that here is a politician who used his charisma to conceal a deeply serious heart, in many ways out of tempo with its time.

Blair seemed instinctively to know what was necessary for survival in an age in which charismatic vacuity was prized over everything, and to guard his deeper thoughts and talents until he was able to put them to what he regarded as their proper use – even if this was to lead to an almost terminal unpopularity.

And while it is true that the situation in Iraq since the 2003 invasion has gone from bad to appalling to better and, right at this moment, back to appalling, none of that should be the measure of the morality of the cause. Whatever about the presentation of the issues to the public, it is clear – for example from the Alastair Campbell diaries – that Tony Blair was motivated well in advance of the invasion by a desire to rid the world of its ugliest dictator. There are few who, when the argument is couched in these terms, can argue convincingly he was wrong.

But the well of popular opinion has become so contaminated on this issue it is almost impossible to be heard in Blair’s defence. Then again, perhaps it is precisely the intensity of the dislike he generates that speaks of Tony Blair’s strongest qualities: his willingness to adopt clear stances, make unpopular decisions and stand over them. Apart from Northern Ireland, his role in bringing a moral gaze to bear on Sierra Leone, East Timor and Kosovo show Blair is a leader who stands head-and-torso above his contemporaries when it comes to courage and moral clarity.

And the most persuasive in Blair’s favour may be that, when faced with the dilemma of Iraq, he had the courage to stand against his own generation, the people who swept him to power in the belief that he was an empty vessel who would make agreeable noises and do nothing except line his shelves with “peace” prizes.

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